Yemen: Saleh looks to sons, family for survival
Many Yemenis fear that the political crisis could turn to an armed clash.
Sanaa: Most of his allies have abandoned him, a popular uprising against him is now in its third month and is rapidly growing, but Yemen's embattled president has so far defied gravity and managed to cling to power.
The secret of Ali Abdullah Saleh's survival is that Yemen's best trained and equipped military units are led by his close family members who are unquestionably loyal, even troops that defected to the opposition are no match for them.
A month ago, many believed Saleh's fall was only a matter of days away. His own tribe demanded his ouster. A wave of party members, lawmakers, Cabinet members, police commanders and senior diplomats abandoned him. Most importantly, several top army commanders, including a longtime confidant who heads a powerful armored division, defected to the opposition and deployed their tanks in the streets of the capital Sanaa to back protesters.
Yet on Wednesday, Saleh appeared as confident as ever. "We will remain steadfast like the mountains of Eidan, Nuqum and Zafar," he proclaimed in a speech to women's groups, referring to some of the region's daunting mountain ranges. "We will not be shaken by the wind."
Many Yemenis fear that the political crisis could turn to an armed clash. Sanaa is already tensely divided between troops backing each rival camp in a tense standoff. Also, security officials say the regime has recently been handing out weapons to hardcore supporters of the ruling party who have set up camp inside Sanaa. At the same time, members of tribes close to dissident commanders have also taken up arms and have entered the capital, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Already, a gunbattle between troops backing the rival sides erupted in a northern Sanaa neighborhood last week, killing one person and wounding several, the officials said.
Saleh, Yemen's leader of 32 years, is not new to adversity. His authority has over the years been threatened with collapse from challenges by unruly tribesmen, secessionists in the south of the country, Shiite rebels in the north or militants belonging to the most active branch of the terror al-Qaida network. He has survived by skillful maneuvering, pitting tribes against each other and wielding patronage.
The current challenge to the 65-year-old Saleh began on Feb. 11 when youth groups inspired by the successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia held demonstrations demanding that Saleh immediately step down. The crowds have swelled to hundreds of thousands around the country.
Saleh has over the past two months used violence to try to quell the unrest, with his security forces killing at least 120 protesters so far. He has also offered concessions, including a pledge not to run again for president or allow his son to succeed him, but to no avail.
Now his survival hinges almost entirely on the loyalty of the Republican Guard and Special Forces, two separate branches of the military led by his son and one-time heir apparent, Ahmed. Also loyal to Saleh is the anti-riot police led by his nephew, Yahya, as well as the president's personal protection force led by another nephew, Tariq. A third nephew, Amar, heads the National Security Authority, a domestic intelligence agency with its own fighting force. The Air Force is led by Saleh's stepbrother Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar.
Yemen's armed forces are estimated to number around 800,000. Among them, the forces led by members of the president's immediate family are thought to number roughly about 150,000-200,000 strong.
But they are better equipped and trained than any other unit in the military and are mostly deployed on the hills overlooking Sanaa, giving them an advantage over any other force trying to seize the city as part of a coup.
"The president's money is on the strength of the security and military forces led by his family," said Ahmed Seif Hashed, an opposition lawmaker and a leader of the uprising. "I think he is convinced that he can still survive this and remain in power."
The main force pitted against them is the 1st Armored Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the Saleh confidant who defected to the uprising on March 21. The division, numbering about 50,000, is a veteran of the war against northern Shiite rebels between 2004-2009.
It now controls western Sanaa, including Change Square, the public roundabout that protesters have made the epicenter of their movement. They are in a tense standoff with the Republican Guard deployed in the southern parts of the city to protect Saleh's presidential palace.
If it comes to a clash, however, other factors could come into play.
A military analyst, retired Brig. Abdullah al-Subeihi, says tribal loyalties are far stronger than loyalty to the state or the armed forces. "It is true that the Republican Guard and anti-riot police are larger and better armed. But in the case of conflict, they will do what their tribal leaders tell them," he said.
The uprising intensified on Wednesday with a call by protesters for civil disobedience in four provinces - Aden, Lahj, Taiz and Ebb. Already, central government authority had virtually disappeared from the southern city of Aden, the country's second largest city, where popular committees are guarding properties and directing traffic. Aden, once the capital of an independent southern nation, is also a hotbed of an ongoing secessionist movement.
Saleh, according to opposition politicians and analysts, has also used the threat of a takeover by al-Qaida and Islamic militant groups if he were ousted as a tool aimed at weakening any Western pressure on him to go.
Saleh has been a key, though not totally reliable, US partner in the fight against al-Qaida, receiving millions of dollars to build up his counterterrorism units with arms and training.
Diplomatic efforts to find a resolution have stalled.
On Wednesday, a senior Yemeni government official said opposition representatives attending peace talks in the United Arab Emirates remained adamant that nothing short of Saleh's immediate departure would satisfy them. That caused the collapse of a mediation bid launched by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation alliance that includes the Emirates.
The GCC's proposal calls for Saleh to step down, but does not present a timetable and offers him immunity from prosecution, something rejected by the opposition. The president wanted two months to oversee the handover of power, the official said, while the opposition would only permit a single week. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because details of the mediation are confidential.
"The president cannot accept being out of office," said analyst Abdul-Bari Taher. "President Saleh thinks that he and Yemen are one and the same."
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